8. Perranporth to Lamorna – a room with(out) a view (or a window), the longest day, escaping from Land’s End and a tin miners’ curry.
I left Perranporth with a spring in my step, happy to be escaping, even though it was a dank, grey morning.
An interesting 12.5 mile walk to Portreath passed a number of atmospheric old tin mines, but the landscape was changing, becoming much more “lived- in” and with perhaps too much evidence of man’s intervention.
After about two hours, the rain started and “persisted down” for the remaining four hours it took to reach Portreath. I can’t really grumble though, as I’d had far fewer wet days than I’d expected, but that didn’t make me feel any better as I trudge disconsolately along the rain sodden path.
The beach café at Chapel Porth provided much needed cheer on such a miserable day. Sitting in a shelter outside the kiosk I enjoyed tea and a tasty slice of home-made ginger cake, while chatting to fellow walkers and the café’s proprietor, who had himself done the coast path 20 years ago.
I was grateful to arrive at my Portreath B&B. This was another curious establishment, where image and reality diverge wildly. The image, as set out on their web site, was of a place where “nothing is too much trouble” and where the owners “go the extra mile” to make their guest’s stay enjoyable. My experience suggested otherwise. My room was a gloomy, “inner sanctum” with no ventilation or window to the outside world (how do they get this past building inspectors?), no heating, other than a small plug-in electric radiator and no shower gel or shampoo. I should have guessed at the paucity of genuinely attractive features when they had found it noteworthy to mention their “fluffy towels” as a selling point on the web site. I also found the list headed “Do’s and Don’ts” pinned prominently on the wall to be really inhospitable and not a little inconsistent with their claim to be “welcoming”.
This was yet another example of the appalling standard of accommodation and service on offer at some of the B&Bs along the coast path. In Portreath I paid the princely sum of £40 for a room that would make the average monk’s cell look like a suite at the Dorchester.
After getting soaking wet and with the prospect of a very long, wet day to come, I weakened and – for the first of only two occasions on the entire trip – arranged a kit transfer to lighten my load on the long march to St Ives. I’m sure that I would have availed myself of this service more often had I not been blessed with a partner who was happy to arrange a “kit transfer” most weekends, so that I could have a couple of days carrying just a day sack, rather than the heavier backpack I carried during the week.
My mood improved after I’d squeezed into the shower stall to freshen up; after which I spent a really enjoyable evening eating, drinking and nattering with Brian, an old colleague from my Truro days. Looking fit and well, he is a great advert for retirement.
Reflecting on another disappointing B&B I wondered at the disparity between image and reality at so many establishments. Many web sites exaggerate the welcome and quality of accommodation when, in reality, being run by dysfunctional people who would more than likely be unemployable in any other profession. The worst places were all privately run B&Bs: in my experience pubs are a far better bet in terms of reliable standards of service and hospitality.
There is an embarrassing footnote to my stay in Portreath. I was shocked to find that I had left my notebook, recording some of the above observations, on the bed. To the proprietors’ credit, they sent it on with the rest of my kit, but with a post-it note informing me pointedly that I had “left it open!!!!” I don’t know if they read my observations, but wouldn’t feel too bad if they had – it might cause them to reflect on the fact that “fluffy towels” do not a good B&B make and that £40 is a bit excessive for the sort of accommodation more usually enjoyed by those on remand. Thus ended my quartet of ropey B&Bs.
The 18 mile walk to St Ives was long and soul destroying, with more steep climbs than I had expected. The kit transfer did lighten my pack though and helped me maintain a good pace.
I made rapid progress along a cliff top path running parallel to the nearby road, bumping into various groups of sightseers when our paths crossed, including a coachload of pensioners from Wigan. Their excited cries as they gazed at the seething cauldron of “Hells Mouth” made me feel quite nostalgic for the North.
On this stretch I also paused-for-thought at a seat by a cliff top car park where, a year or so ago, we had stopped with my mum and her sister, my aunty Francis. My aunty was full of fun and little did we know then that, not long afterwards, a stroke would cruelly render her virtually paralysed and make her last year a living hell. A reminder to enjoy life to the full while we can and not moan about little things: like having another 10 miles or so to walk.
Just when I was thinking that this was going to be a relatively ordinary day, I witnessed the most extraordinary sight of the whole trip.
As I neared Godrevy Point, I began to notice more and more “casual walkers”; people who had strolled the few hundred yards from the National Trust car park. Many of these people were clustered along the cliff top looking down towards a cove. I realised why they were so excited when I saw over 30 seals, including many pups, swimming around or basking on the beach. I had only seen three seals since starting the walk in Minehead, so to see this number in one place really was special.
The walk through the seemingly never-ending Hayle and Gwithian Towans was absolutely soul destroying and very tiring. I lost my way a few times through the huge sand dunes, but I’m not sure if this was due to poor signage or poor navigation due to the fact that I was tired and losing concentration. Without making excuses, it did seem that that the usually superb signposting deteriorated as I wandered “off-piste” yet again, across a golf course at Carbis Bay, much to the consternation of the tartan-trousered golfers urging me to get off their course.
My spirits did not lift as I negotiated some dangerous stretches of road during the long slog through the urban environs of Hayle. Even the walk along the causeway round the Hayle estuary did nothing to cheer me up – despite it being a bird watching site of international significance, particularly in the winter months when it is full of visiting ducks and waders.
Lest I’m giving the impression that, barring the seals, this was mainly a day of unremitting misery, I should add that I did pass a spectacular bluebell wood near Lelant and also a really atmospheric little church near the aforementioned golf course at Carbis Bay.
I was very glad to reach my destination and stop walking, but my agony was prolonged as I realised that my B&B, the Carlill Guest House, was up a long steep hill. Just what I needed after an 18 mile day! It was a good, friendly and comfortable B&B though – a total antidote to the previous four penal establishments.
After settling in at the Carlill and regaining the use of my limbs I had an enjoyable stroll through St Ives. I preferred it to other tourist honey-pots like Port Isaac and Padstow, but that could be because I was there on a lovely evening and drank a perfect pint of Old Speckled Hen outside the Sloop, watching the sun set over the harbour. At £3.60, this was the most expensive pint of the whole trip, but was well worth it for the view.
A perfect evening ended with another pint and a plate of that Cornish classic, “Homity Pie”, at the Lifeboat Inn. I was entertained during my meal by two American women at an adjacent table who ordered fish and chips but found them too greasy for their refined tastes and proceeded to remove the batter from their fish and dry the chips individually with their napkins. A hilarious end to the sort of evening you would like to bottle.
After her long, early morning drive from Bristol to St Ives, Pat joined me after breakfast for part of the 14 mile walk to Pendeen. This walk is one of the few sections rated “challenging” on the SWCP web site and I know many people who rave about it: my expectations were therefore high. In the event, I was a bit disappointed. Sure, there were great views, lots of ups and downs, and lofty cliffs covered in yellow and pink flowers but, while pleasantly surprised not to find the gradients as bad as some earlier days, there was one major drawback – the rock and boulder strewn path, which made it impossible to get into any sort of rhythm while hopping from rock to rock like demented frogs. I guess the tough going is what earns the challenging rating, but “unpleasantly tough underfoot” would be much more accurate. The other “challenging” stretches are physically demanding, but didn’t reduce me to a foul-mouthed, purple faced wreck as this one did. Pat left me at Zennor to catch the bus back to St Ives, reclaim her car and then drive to meet me in Pendeen.
A frustrating day was lightened by meeting a mother and son from Merseyside, who were bonding by walking a stretch of the path, camping en-route. I met several people who were doing it “the hard way” and carrying all their camping gear on their backs – some of them not in the first flush of youth either – but that’s not for me. When I was younger back-packing round the SWCP would have appealed, but these days I look forward to a bed and a dry room at the end of the day. The prospect of carrying a heavier pack would, I feel, have defeated me. I’m full of admiration for those who do it entirely under their own steam: they are the truly “hard” men and women of the SWCP.
We met up with our friends Peter and Gwyneth at Pendeen, “The Pieman” having rashly agreed to accompany me for the next two days. It was a joy to check into our B&B at the North Inn. The accommodation was not in the pub, but in a chalet outside at the back, thankfully within easy walking distance of the excellent bar in this old tin miners’ haunt. I was excited to find that our room had a bath. When you are tired after a long day’s walk, such small delights assume major significance.
I cannot recommend the North Inn highly enough, or its unexpected curry menu. We were told that one of the brothers who run the pub had served in the Army in India and had brought back a range of recipes with him. We tried four different dishes between us and they were all equally good. The ambience in the bar was superb, from the resident dog, “Spike”, who wandered around the bar scavenging food, to the small child at an adjacent table who asked what our poppadoms were and was told by his mum that they were like “big crisps.” A fair assessment and one that he seemed to concur with having tried one of mine. He was closely followed by his little sister, who clearly didn’t want to be left out of the food tasting.
The next day, after breakfast in the North Inn’s charming old dining room, I walked with Pat and Peter to Sennen Cove. We passed the amazingly atmospheric tin mine engine houses and associated buildings at Levant and then met Gwyneth for a cup of tea and a delicious piece of cake at Cape Cornwall. When I lived in Truro this used to be one of my favourite haunts and a good spot for seal spotting – not today though. This was a very good walk, in good company, in fine sunny weather. What’s not to like?
Several kestrels flew alongside us at cliff-top level and much to our delight, we spotted a few choughs. The chough features on Cornwall’s coat of arms and this iconic, once extinct bird was re-introduced onto the cliffs in these parts some years ago and is now breeding productively.
One feature of the walk was breakfasting with people who we would then meet further along the trail. At breakfast in Pendeen we met an entertaining trio of Americans – a couple from San Francisco and a woman from Vermont – who were spending a few days walking the path. The man was a Billy Connolly look-alike, sporting an impressive beard and wearing a big black hat. We met them several times on the trail and also in our hotel at Sennen Cove and they were always good company. They were making very slow but sure progress and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying their visit to this corner of England.
After meeting up with Gwyneth at the Old Success Inn at Sennen Cove, a good fish meal was enjoyed by all before listening to local entertainer Jim Knight singing some good oldies-but-goldies from the 60’ and 70’s. One night (or Knight) didn’t seem enough in this spot, but Lamorna beckoned and the next day we moved on.
Next morning I enjoyed one of the few full English breakfasts of the whole trip, having decided that if I were to eat the full English every day I would be lucky to survive the walk. We spoke to a delightful little girl called Rosie who was with a large family group scattering her granddad’s ashes at Sennen.
Walking with “The Pieman,” this was arguably the best day so far, weather and wildlife-wise. We saw more wild flowers than ever, including endless carpets of bluebells, plus 3 seals, 4 choughs and an adder. We were amazed at how close we got to one chough, who was feeding on the ground a few feet away and seemingly more interested in eating his lunch than in the threat posed by my size 11s. Add to this the view of Wolf Rock lighthouse in the foreground and the occasional glimpse of the Isles of Scilly in the far distance and we had a perfect recipe for a great day out. Apart from Land’s End that is!
Our pace quickened as we passed this eyesore. What was once a lovely, unspoilt stretch of coastline has become a kind of theme park, with a range of features all designed to part the tourist from his holiday money. I know that it wouldn’t do for us all to like the same things and I’m sure there are those who find the “attractions” highly attractive: however, does this attraction have to be set here, amid such beautiful and hitherto unspoilt scenery?
We soon passed the “Wolf-Rock(y) Horror Show” and were proceeding to Porthcurno when we were surprised by Pat and Gwyneth, who unexpectedly sprang up from behind a wall near the Minack theatre – an auditorium carved out of the cliff side and an amazingly atmospheric place to watch a performance. Pausing only for a quick soliloquy we forged on to Lamorna, where I made a disheartening discovery.
Had I researched the location of my B&B more thoroughly I would have realised that it was around 3 (uphill) miles from Lamorna Cove, along some very narrow lanes. Luckily, Gwyneth met us at the Cove and was able to drive me to the B&B, after a nice meal at the Royal Oak in Paul. “The Pieman” was exhausted and could only manage a bowl of soup as he sat shivering in his fleece jacket in the corner of the pub. Probably rather selfishly, I took his distress to be a measure of how much fitter I had become during the course of the walk.
Castallack Farm is tucked away at the back of Lamorna and is an ideal place for those wanting a peaceful break. While not ideally located for the coastal walker, this minor drawback is far outweighed by the quality of the accommodation and the friendliness of the proprietor, Nick. The farm provides riding holidays and boasts a flock of pedigree sheep, looked after by a resident lama. Imagine my surprise when, expecting to hear the sound of Buddhist chanting wafting in from the fields, I found a South American quadruped watching over the sheep.
Breakfast on my rest day in Lamorna was taken in a charming room overlooking a courtyard. Nick asked me how I was spending the day and when I told him I was planning to get a bus to Penzance, he offered me a lift to Newlyn. His unforced friendliness was really refreshing and after feigning reluctance, I readily accepted his kind offer.
I spent a few enjoyable hours in Newlyn, sitting by the harbour, reading a book, writing postcards and generally watching the world go by. The mobile library arrived and seemed to be very well frequented – as I’ve already said, it’s such a shame if facilities like this, the lifeblood of rural communities, fall victim to Government cuts.
As Newlyn woke up, I visited the friendly (and free) art gallery and saw an exhibition by Richard Hilton, a local artist made good. The gallery was built by John Passmore Edwards, a name that I’ve seen many times on old libraries and other public buildings in the West Country. He was an interesting character, a self-educated philanthropist and a great believer in self-improvement for the working man. Values I subscribe to.
I walked around Mounts Bay towards the metropolis of Penzance and was surprised at the culture shock. After being out “in the wilds” for so long it was strange seeing so many cars and people!
Needing a haircut, I found “Sweeny Todd’s,” a very friendly establishment run by a tattooed Essex girl called (inevitably) Tracey. I knew I was in for an entertaining time when, upon entering her shop, Tracey hollered, “come on in, you know you want me.” After much banter, during which time I discovered that what Tracey missed most about Essex was pie and mash, I left with a big hug and a bigger smile on my face.
I had a lunchtime glass of wine in a sunny beer garden, surrounded by two families who would be described as “chavs”, if it were not for fear of insulting genuine “chavs”. Despite having small children these examples of England’s gilded youth seemed intent on embarrassing me out of my seat by making unsavoury comments and proceeding to “F and Blind” in extremely loud, drunken voices. Having a very high embarrassment threshold, I stood my ground until I could bear their inane drivel no more. What a fine example to set their children – and how sadly inevitable that they will follow in their parents footsteps.
I then sat dozing in the early afternoon sunshine waiting for my friend and former colleague Richard to arrive.
The next four days were not quite what I had expected as I learnt that, at my time of life, I’m probably best in a single room. Reflecting on this after the walk, I believe that I had been alone for too long and had got used to “being my own boss” in terms of things like control of the TV remote or the room light. Given that I believe Richard to be very similarly disposed in this regard, a shared room was not a good recipe for a restful night’s sleep – and that is what you need on this walk. Richard was great company on the walk, but we would both agree that sharing a room was a mistake!